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Senators predict end to Independent Counsel Act

March 1, 1999
Web posted at: 3:52 p.m. EST (2052 GMT)

WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, March 1) -- Saying, "I don't think it is fixable," Sen. Tom Daschle on Sunday echoed the sentiments of many lawmakers on Capitol Hill toward the Independent Counsel Act.

With the statute set to expire on June 30, it is almost certain the law will be allowed to lapse.

"The time has come for us to close the books and try to find another way within the Justice Department itself to handle these responsibilities," the South Dakota Democrat said on ABC's "The Week."

Even GOP members of Congress agree with the Senate's minority leader.

"I'm beginning to think it would be better to put it back in Justice, demand more accountability, bring in these special counsels when the situation calls for it," Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee said on NBC.

But Thompson, who chairs the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee that oversees the Independent Counsel Act, rejects criticism of Independent Counsel Ken Starr, saying the problem is that the law fails to balance independence with accountability.

Under the current law, special prosecutors have an unlimited budget to hire aides and investigate their targets. Starr, for instance, has spent nearly $50 million investigating President Bill Clinton.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan), an author of the 1978 law and the ranking Democrat on Thompson's committee, also believes the law is flawed.

"Ken Starr has demonstrated the excesses and the extreme to which an independent counsel can go unless you have limits on that work," said Levin.

According to Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Connecticut), the 20 independent counsels appointed under the act have spent a total of about $150 million. Two-thirds of their investigations have not led to any indictments, Dodd told NBC's "Meet the Press."

Both House and Senate committees plan hearings this week on the act.

Levin suggested that Congress look at a way to keep investigations within the Justice Department without sacrificing independence, "so that we can have that kind of public confidence without having the abuses we've seen over the years."

"For 180 years, we had a good system. It can work. It can work again. We don't need this independent counsel statute," Dodd said, citing how the old system worked even when President Richard Nixon fired special counsel Archibald Cox in 1973 because of his probe into Watergate.

After the so-called "Saturday night massacre," Cox's successor, Justice Department special counsel Leon Jaworski, won 39 convictions on 45 indictments, Dodd said.

But Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Connecticut) told CNN's "Late Edition" he hopes Democrats will not rush to kill the act because of their distaste for Starr's investigation. Refuting Dodd's assertion, Lieberman said "the system came close to a collapse" when Nixon fired Cox.

It was reaction to Nixon's firings that prompted the independent counsel statute. The law requires the attorney general to seek the appointment of an independent counsel when there is substantial and credible evidence of a crime by any one of 49 top federal officials, including the president.

A panel of three federal judges then picks an attorney for the job. With approval from the attorney general and the appointing judges, the independent counsel can broaden investigations far beyond the original mandate, another target of the law's critics.

The statute was tested and found constitutional by the Supreme Court. Republicans were the first to complain of the law's abuse during Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh's seven-year Iran-Contra investigation. The controversy prompted Congress to let the law lapse for 18 months during the early 1990s.

Ironically, it was Clinton who successfully campaigned for the statute's renewal in 1994.


RELATED STORIES

Senate panel spotlights independent counsel law (2-24-99)

Congress to ponder independent counsel demise (2-23-99)

Hatch: Reno decision on Ickes 'death knell' for independent counsel (1-30-99)

Espy: Independent Counsel law needs 'substantial' reform (12-4-98)


VIDEO

Charles Bierbauer reports: Senate panel spotlights independent counsel law (2-24-99) video Windows Media: 28K | 80K


ACTIVE INVESTIGATIONS

Ken Starr's probe of the Clintons:
Special report: Investigating the president

Donald Smaltz' probe of Mike Espy:
Tough sentence for Espy's top aide upheld (1-26-99)

Espy innocent of all charges (12-2-98)

Ralph Lancaster's probe of Alexis Herman:
Herman: Reno 'did what she felt she had to do' in naming counsel (7-12-98)

Independent Counsel to target Herman (5-11-98)

Cisneros pleads not guilty (1-8-98)

Carol Elder Bruce's probe of Bruce Babbitt:
Counsel named for Babbitt probe (3-19-98)

Reno calls for independent counsel in Babbitt probe (2-11-98)


RELATED SITES

AllPolitics' Watergate 25th Anniversary Web site

Department of Justice

Office of Independent Counsel

White House

Senate Governmental Affairs Committee


MESSAGE BOARD

The Independent Counsel



MORE STORIES:

Monday, March 1, 1999



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